COVID-19 has changed so much about our lives that it’s mind-boggling. Almost every lifestyle, business, profession, and person you can think of has been touched and altered by this vicious virus that spread like wildfire throughout the planet.
The pressure society faces in the wake of COVID-19 leads us to wonder what our future might look like. We’re all wearing masks and keeping our distance from other human beings because, after all, it’s human beings who spread this dreaded disease.
With that in mind, would it be safer for certain jobs … let’s say, rideshare and delivery driving, to be filled by something other than humans? Well, they’ve got an army of AI designers, coders, and testers working on that very task!
Uber and Lyft, along with many other companies worldwide, have invested a whole lot of money in developing autonomous vehicles—cars without people piloting them; in other words, ROBOTS to do the jobs us drivers are doing now.
We’ve examined this issue before. If you read our blog post of August 2019, for instance, you’ll learn a lot about the world of self-driving vehicle development, and what it means—or rather, what it used to mean in the pre-COVID world.
Now, with shutdown orders creeping back into our lives and masks being mandated all around, we thought it was timely to revisit this topic, and take another look at what might happen next. Here’s what this post will examine:
- How the pandemic has changed the economic viability of autonomous vehicles
- From COVID precautions to new technology
- What stands in the way of autonomous vehicle domination
- What the future might look like
Autonomous vehicles get more economically viable
In the past, a major obstacle to autonomous vehicles paying off was the utilization rate, meaning the amount of time a vehicle on the company’s network is producing a profit. In order for a driverless car to pay off, it would have to be engaged in profit-making activity almost all the time.
Until recently, that seemed enormously unrealistic.
Cars with drivers providing rideshare services had a utilization rate of just 52%. For there to be enough business to make autonomous vehicles economically viable would require something big to happen.
Well, something big did happen.
It’s now a given that the delivery business, both for restaurant food and groceries, has been driven up by people who are leery of exposure to COVID-19. Who wants to go to a grocery or retail store when you have to wait in line outside just to get in—and once you gain entry, you risk being exposed to the virus?
For this and other reasons, there’s mounting evidence that people are becoming more reliant on delivery. One convincing sign? When the shutdowns began, delivery apps were downloaded in record numbers.
According to Apptopia, a company that tracks app downloads, by March 15, 2020 new records had been set for Instacart, Walmart Grocery, Shipt, and Target that represented increases of 218%, 160%, 124% and 98% (respectively) over the number of daily downloads for February 15.
If you drive for a delivery company, you already know firsthand there’s a lot more business than there used to be. And even the rideshare business has been picking up over these last several weeks. Information collected by Gridwise shows there’s a solid upsurge in demand and utilization rate for rideshare.
Take a look at this graph and you’ll see the trend.
As shown here, earnings per mile and trips per hour have not only rebounded; they seem to be surpassing the levels reached in early 2020, before COVID-19 shutdowns hit. Between this impressive performance by the rideshare industry and increases in delivery, vehicle utilization rate is also going up.
While this is excellent news for you as a driver, unfortunately it’s also very good for what might ultimately replace you … autonomous vehicles.
If the companies can find ways to keep their autonomous vehicles active, delivering as well as providing rideshare services, they can increase their utilization rate and bring down the cost per mile. That could make it much more feasible (and likely) that companies could turn a profit with driverless cars.
From COVID precautions to autonomous vehicles
The idea of dealing with a highly contagious virus has sent a shockwave of fear and dread across the globe. A May 2020 article in MIT Technology Review, provided by the leading Chinese technology company Baidu, extols the driverless vehicle’s role in combating coronavirus concerns.
As the article states: “Restrictions on retail, dining, and everyday life during the outbreak have increased demand for driverless deliveries and non-contact operations, both heavily relying on autonomous driving technologies.”
The Chinese are testing smaller, less cumbersome vehicles to perform such functions as delivering key supplies to hospitals and healthcare workers, as well as cleaning street surfaces in highly infected areas.
Photo from MIT Technology Review
Vehicles of this nature can definitely cut down on drivers’ exposure to infected surfaces and healthcare workers who expose themselves to the virus. The vehicles’ smaller size would permit them to access the nooks and crannies of sprawling healthcare facilities such as hospitals, as well as public spaces like urban plazas and parks.
Better yet, the vehicle can double as a security guard when it isn’t in use for its conveyance capabilities.
Yet whether tiny cars like this or full-sized cars are used for rideshare, we can’t help wondering … Can it disinfect itself? How would that be achieved? We have no idea, but technology will probably find a way to address that.
The fact is, there’s a culture of interconnectivity and monitoring that humanity has never come close to experiencing before. New technology makes amazing things possible. The Chinese, for example, are in the process of developing “smart cities.”
The technology involved in smart cities and the vehicles, systems, and humans who inhabit them, is a quantum leap from where we are now. In smart cities, vehicles such as the one shown in the picture above are driven by a revolutionary technology, known as Vehicle-to-Everything, or V2X.
According to Baidu, V2X is a “comprehensive technology that enables vehicles to communicate with the environment, aiming to make autonomous vehicles safer, smarter, more economical, and convenient.”
That certainly sounds like an endeavor that will accelerate the development and deployment of autonomous vehicles. We might wonder how, if at all, the march of these robotic cars can be stopped. But let’s back up for just a minute and remember something: Before we’re plugged into these all-seeing, all-knowing smart cities (and in the process, pushed out of our rideshare and delivery driver jobs) there are some pretty big hurdles that must be cleared.
What’s holding up autonomous vehicle domination?
The role of 5G
You’ve surely heard about 5G being the next generation of wireless communication. It will be convenient, we’re told, for speedy downloading of gaming software and content for streaming.
What you may not know is that 5G is also designed to facilitate robotics, and that part of its purpose is to enable machine-to-machine (M2M) communication at new levels of speed and efficiency.
According to the United Nations agency, International Telecommunications Union (ITU), 5G will provide low-latency (delay), high-reliability service for time-critical applications. The challenge is that 5G networks, so far, have only a limited range. Higher frequencies must be used, and they will require many more base stations, and extremely complex infrastructure.
While some of the carriers are offering versions of 5G now, the kind of network that will be required to fully support autonomous vehicles and other components of smart cities is at least four to five years off, by most estimates. It’s being rolled out in phases, and what many mobile customers believe to be 5G at this point in time isn’t 5G at its full capacity. For that, we’ll have to wait. To read a more detailed explanation of 5G issues, check out this March 2020 article in the technology site Lifewire.
Regulation and Safety
Regulation and safety, from international, national, regional, and municipal authorities, will play into the viability of autonomous vehicles and their proliferation. This also goes for full-blown 5G networks. There are health concerns about the radio waves 5G emanates, and there are even more fears of bodily harm resulting from accidents involving autonomous vehicles.
There are specifications and testing that companies must go through before they even think about releasing a product. They must complete and log a certain number of miles, and report any accidents that occur.
Both Google and Tesla are rallying their troops to develop autonomous vehicles. Google seems intent on licensing its driving software, while Tesla is producing a complete package of its own. Tesla CEO Elon Musk claims their “robo-taxi” could be rolled out in early 2021. It would begin with a human driver monitoring the rides, but eventually, the driver would be taken out of the equation.
What could be a consolation is that Musk would like to sell these cars to individuals who would make money on the robo-taxi rides. Each car, Musk estimates, could earn around $10,000 annually, which would pay off the cost of the car within a few years. If you can afford to own one of these cars—or a few—it might not be a bad investment. More about Musk’s hopes and dreams about the robo-car can be found in this May 2020 article.
This whole undertaking may sound unlikely, or even impossible. But remember, we’re talking about the guy who recently launched a rocket, containing a capsule manned by astronauts who made it to the ISS without incident—in the first orbital human spaceflight to launch from the United States since NASA retired its space shuttle fleet in 2011.
The creepy factor
Even though technology is amazing and awe-inspiring, it could take quite a while before riders—and even delivery customers—greet a driverless vehicle without at least some apprehension.
Many human beings mistrust automation, particularly when their personal, bodily safety is at stake. What happens if there’s a glitch or a communication breakdown? Admittedly, even to the less likely Luddites among us, it does seem scary to leave something so nuanced as driving to … ROBOTS.
Alas, the day may come when autonomous vehicles will take to the road and kick us out of the driver’s seat. From what we’ve seen so far, that’s likely to happen later rather than sooner, but still … it does appear that the robo-cars are on their way, and the COVID-19 situation could speed up the process.
Surges in rideshare and delivery volume have opened up ways to bring up the utilization factor. Also, the need to be safe from contagions could supersede the desire to be driven by a real human being.
What do you think? Share your ideas with the Gridwise community in the comments section below, and tell us what you think about the march of the machines.
Gridwise is always with you
For now, and for the foreseeable future, you still have a driving job—or maybe two or three. If you haven’t done so already, download Gridwise to track your earnings on all the rideshare and delivery apps you use, record your mileage, and keep up with weather, airport traffic, and events.
You can also read additional fascinating blog posts, get driver deals, and easy access to J and Brandon’s magical podcast—all in the Perks tab. Gridwise will proudly ride with you; it’s the ultimate rideshare and delivery assistant.
No matter what, be safe out there. And remember … we’ve got your back.